Strikers march on Sidney Street. Photo: Getty
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Winston Churchill in the New Statesman archive

A pre-war interview, “Should we hang Mr Churchill?” and how a wartime cabinet colleague fell under the Prime Minister's spell.

22 May 1926: Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?

By Clifford Sharp

In 1926, when Churchill was chancellor, British miners went on strike to demand improved working conditions. Churchill’s response – sending in the army – was tempered by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who insisted that the soldiers remain unarmed and who later called for reconciliation and peace. An extract from a commentary by the then NS editor.

By the spirit and manner in which Mr Baldwin ended the great strike he almost atoned for the way in which he precipitated it. For there is no longer any doubt that it was precipitated by the action of the Government, and, what is more, quite deliberately precipitated. It is, of course, a matter of common knowledge now that the strike need not have occurred . . .

What actually happened, it seems, was this. The Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland were fighting desperately for peace, whilst a section of the Cabinet, led by Mr Winston Churchill, Mr Neville Chamberlain and Mr Bridgeman, were itching for a fight. The peace party succeeded in arranging terms based on the Royal Commission’s Report, upon which the strike would be called off and the miners left, if they would not agree, to fight alone. With these terms they returned in triumph to the Cabinet room only to find Messrs Churchill and Chamberlain in charge and a clear majority in favour of war at all costs. When the Prime Minister proposed nevertheless to go forward with the negotiations and avert the strike, he was faced with the immediate resignation of seven of his colleagues—Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Bridgeman, Amery, “Jix”, Cunliffe-Lister, and one other of whose identity we are not sure. So he gave way. He ought not to have given way, of course, but excuses may perhaps be found for an utterly exhausted man who, having fought the Trade Unions for days and nights, found himself called upon at the last moment to fight his own colleagues.

Mr Churchill was the villain of the piece. He is reported to have remarked that he thought “a little blood-letting” would be all to the good. Whether he actually used this phrase or not there is no doubt about his tireless efforts to seize the providential opportunity for a fight.

So much for the way the strike began. When it ended Mr Baldwin had regained control of his Cabinet and had acquired so enormous a personal popularity in the country that he could afford to let all his colleagues resign if they wanted to. He took charge of affairs without consulting anybody, and without any Cabinet authorisation—which would certainly not have been forthcoming from the fight-to-a-finish section—he insisted upon peace. Thereby he atoned for his previous surrender. “Victimisation” was being attempted in almost every industry. Men were being asked to return to work as new hands, at much lower wages, under humiliating conditions. The Prime Minister stopped all that within twenty-four hours, by his insistence upon the necessity of forgetting the past and looking only to the future. Some of his colleagues and many of his supporters railed at him for his “weakness”; but this time he stood firm—and gave us peace. His atonement, we think, should be accepted. He blundered on that Sunday night in agreeing to war, but ever since then he has fought for peace, and fought with an extraordinary measure of success.

We do not know whether there is anybody left who still honestly believes that the strike was a “revolutionary” attempt to subvert the British Constitution. Its real nature, at any rate, was shown clearly enough by the actual course of events. It was a strike “in furtherance of a trade dispute”, and nothing more; and in so far as it secured for the miners—if they would but have seized the chance—a better hearing than they would otherwise have had, it may not unreasonably be claimed to have been a successful strike, despite the inevitable, and in our view timely, “surrender”. Not only was it not a strike against the Constitution, it was not even a strike against the Government. If it had the appearance of a strike against the Government, that was only because the Government had intervened—and rightly, though very ineffectively, intervened—in the struggle between the miners and the mineowners. If it had not intervened the strike would have taken place just the same; but then the truth would have been clear to everybody—namely, that it was a strike against the inefficiency and grasping obstinacy of the mineowners—nothing more and nothing less. The Constitution was never threatened either by word or by deed.

The general result of the strike is not unsatisfactory. It has shown that an industrial upheaval can take place, in this country at any rate, without the loss of a single life. But what is far more important, it has shown that the weapon of the General Strike is practically worthless in the hands of those who are not prepared to go to all lengths of revolutionary violence. It is a weapon which revolutionaries (being a tiny minority) could never wield; yet unless it is they who wield it, it is blunt and ineffective.

And so from henceforth we may hope that it will be discarded by the Trade Union movement. It has been tested and broken, and we all know where we are far more clearly than we did a month ago. The Trade Unions of Britain stood by their comrades in the mines, and perhaps by their wonderful solidarity they achieved something for them; but certainly the majority of them will never again wish to resort to so desperate a measure.

We have bought experience at a pretty high price, but we have got it; and no section of the community, we suppose, is more satisfied with the bargain than the “constitutional” leaders of the Labour movement. The irrepressible left-wingers are silenced; their dreams are dissolved; they must set about the Sisyphean task of converting the Trade Unions of Great Britain to revolutionary ideas, or admit failure.

For having so notably helped to teach us all this, ought we to thank Mr Churchill or ought we to hang him on a lamp-post for the incorrigible “blood-letter” that he is? We are really not quite sure what is the proper answer to that question; but probably—to be on the safe side—it would be best that he should be hanged. 

Photo: Captain Horton/IWM via Getty Images
 

7 January 1939: “The British people would rather go down fighting”

By Kingsley Martin

The Second World War was still eight months away when Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman from 1931 to 1960, interviewed Winston Churchill, yet again on the Conservative back benches, about democracy and fascism, the necessity of rearmament and the British attitude to war.

A famous journalist once told me of an alarming interview that he had with Mr Churchill some years before the last war. Mr Churchill happened to be in full Privy Councillor’s uniform and emphasised his points with finely executed passes and slashes of his sword. Mr Churchill himself declares that this is a fairy tale; and certainly, when I went to see him the other day, he was wielding nothing more ferocious than the builder’s trowel with which he was completing an arch in the house that he has built with his own hands this summer. He was not, however, too much absorbed to discuss very fully the problem of Democracy and Efficiency.

Kingsley Martin The country has learnt to associate you with the view that we must all get together as quickly as possible to rearm in defence of democracy. In view of the strength and character of the totalitarian states, is it possible to combine the reality of democratic freedom with efficient military organisation?

Mr Winston Churchill The essential aspects of democracy are the freedom of the individual, within the framework of laws passed by Parliament, to order his life as he pleases, and the uniform enforcement of tribunals independent of the executive. The laws are based on Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, the Petition of Right and others. Without this foundation there can be no freedom or civilisation, anyone being at the mercy of officials and liable to be spied upon and betrayed even in his own home. As long as these rights are defended, the foundations of freedom are secure.

KM One point people are especially afraid of is that free criticism in Parliament and in the press may be sacrificed. The totalitarian states, it is said, are regimented, organised and unhampered, as the Prime Minister suggested the other day, by critics of the Government “who foul their own nest”.

WC Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.

KM Do you attribute the slowness in preparation of which you complain to any inherent defect in democratic institutions?

WC I am convinced that with adequate leadership, democracy can be a more efficient form of government than Fascism. In this country at any rate the people can readily be convinced that it is necessary to make sacrifices, and they will willingly undertake them if the situation is put clearly and fairly before them . . . It may be that greater efficiency in secret military preparations can be achieved in a country with autocratic institutions than by the democratic system. But this advantage is not necessarily great, and it is far outweighed by the strength of a democratic country in a long war. In an autocracy, when the pinch comes, the blame is thrown upon the leader and the system breaks up. In a democratic country the people feel that they are respon­sible, and if they believe in their cause will hold out much longer than the population of Dictator States . . .

KM May I go back now to the question of pre-war preparation? We should all agree on the necessity for many restrictions in war-time, but what about conscription and the compulsion of labour and capital in time of peace? Captain Liddell Hart has remarked that to have conscription to combat Fascism is like cutting our throats to avoid a disease.

WC I see no reason why any essential part of our liberties should be lost by preparations for defence. I do not think we need a great conscript army on the continental model, but we should have besides our regular professional army a considerably larger body of Territorials available for home defence or foreign service in an emergency. In case of war a great army could be built up around such a skeleton. I would not hesitate to fill up the gap by ballot among all the young men of the country of the appropriate age, allowing no substitute whatsoever.

KM How much coercion of industry is implied in a Ministry of Supply with special powers? Will it involve state control of raw materials, and compete with the methods the Nazis have so successfully employed in South-East Europe and South America?

WC As you know, I have long pressed for a Ministry of Supply. In my view this should have powers, if necessary, to compel industry to give priority as required to Government contracts for rearmament purposes, and to devote or turn over any necessary portion of its plant to such work.

KM May I pass on to another related subject – ARP [Air Raid Precautions]? People say that the problem of defending London and other big cities in itself involves regimen­tation on an enormous scale. That you have to set up an army of petty officers with undefined powers.

WC I think a great mistake has been made in spreading our ARP efforts over the whole country, instead of concentrating on what I should call the target areas. I do not believe any enemy will waste his bombs and effort on killing ordinary citizens just out of spite, when he could obtain a much greater military result by bombing docks, factories, Government offices and the like. I am certain that in the villages the risk will be infinitesimal. Our main effort should be to protect workers in the central parts of London, in the ports, and in the manufacturing districts which will be subject to attack. I should be inclined to consider the building of great underground roads, leading out of London and branching off to various points in the countryside, which would not only serve to evacuate the Capital in time of danger, but could be used as dormitories and refuges for those who were compelled to remain behind. That some steps should be taken to prepare the population for the ordeal of bombing which would probably overtake it on the outbreak of war, seems to be essential. If everybody knows that preparations have been made, and what to do, it seems to me there is less likelihood of inhabitants of the East End believing they will be left in the lurch while the rich look after themselves.

KM People who are not necessarily pacifist are horrified at the idea that we may go into another war with the same kind of generals who were responsible for Passchendaele and other horrors in the last war. They say that they might be prepared to fight for democracy if they were democratically led; but that they are damned if they will be sacrificed again for the Camberley clique that was so horribly inefficient and wasteful in the last war. Do you think it is possible to democratise the army?

WC It is quite true, I know, that many people consider that the cadre of officers is selected from too narrow a class. I have always taken the view that merit should be rewarded by promotion in the army as in any other profession. I support this not only from the point of view of democratising the army, but mainly because I think it leads to efficiency such as no other system can achieve.

KM May I ask one more question of a more general character? Most of us feel that if there is a war it will be so destructive that the very substance of our civilisation, let alone our democracy, is likely to be destroyed. Clearly the great object is to prevent war. Is it possible in your view still to regard these military preparations, not as
the acceptance of inevitable war, but merely as a necessary complement of a policy which may keep the peace?

WC I fear that failure to rearm Britain is bound to lead to war. Had we strengthened our defences earlier, the arms race need never have arisen. We should have come to a settlement with Germany while she was still disarmed. I think it is still possible, with a strong Britain and France, to preserve the peace of Europe.

KM Is it not true historically that an armaments race leads to war?

WC To say that an arms race always leads to war seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. A government resolved to attain ends detrimental to its neighbours, which does not shrink from the possibility of war, makes preparations for war, its neighbours take defensive action, and you say an arms race is beginning. But this is the symptom of the intention of one government to challenge or destroy its neighbours, not the cause of the conflict. The pace is set by the potential aggressor, and, failing collective action by the rest of the world to resist him, the alternatives are an arms race or surrender. War is very terrible, but stirs a proud people. There have been periods in our history when we have given way for a long time, but a new and formidable mood arises . . .

KM A bellicose mood?

WC A mood of “Thus far, and no farther”. It is only by the spirit of resistance that man has learnt to stand upright, and in-stead of walking on all fours to assume an erect posture.

KM Do you think it possible to concentrate mainly on defence with the idea that we should be less afraid of attack and therefore able to stand up for ourselves without preparing to bomb other people?

WC I cannot subscribe to the idea that it might be possible to dig ourselves in and make no preparations for anything other than passive defence. It is the theory of the turtle, disproved at every Lord Mayor’s Banquet. If the enemy can attack as and when he pleases without fear of reprisals, we should become the whipping-boy of Europe. We need shelters and tunnels, but crouching in a tunnel is not a fighting posture. Quite apart from the fact that we could never defend our dependencies on such lines, we should be exposed to inevitable defeat. Every nation of the world would have an incentive to have a free cut at the melon. War is horrible, but slavery is worse, and you may be sure that the British people would rather go down fighting than live in servitude. 

29 January 1965: The Great Outsider

Unsigned editorial

The week Churchill died, the NS ran a front-page editorial in which it praised “the greatest man of action of his age”. Not everyone agreed. “I read your front-page article on Churchill with my now accustomed regret,” one reader wrote in a letter. “I have taken the New Statesman for some 35 years and I am still astonished that a team of intelligent people can be so out of touch with ordinary human beings . . . whenever you touch human grandeur, be it Churchill or de Gaulle, it crumbles into grit between your fingers.”

Winston Churchill’s formal education was a failure; he left school ignorant and unawakened. To his grief, his brilliant father largely ignored him and declined any course of instruction in politics. Thus, though born to a great historical tradition of public service, he was largely self-taught and self-formed, a process he accomplished as a lonely subaltern on the frontiers of empire. It is not surprising, therefore, that he never developed a coherent political philosophy, and in several respects his approach to politics was unsophisticated, even immature.

This led him into many errors and mis-judgments. Though a good House of Commons man, he could not adapt himself to the party system. His lighthearted change of party and his brash approach to the problem of coercing Ulster laid the foundations for the deep distrust in which he was held, through most of his life, by orthodox Tories. He allowed himself to be out-manoeuvred over Gallipoli, the one stroke of strategic genius which could have shortened the war; instead, the incident confirmed his reputation for folly. Free trade made him join the Liberals. But he despised their anaemic Nonconformity and they, in turn, feared his belligerent view of life. At the same time, his unthinking imperialism, his eager acceptance of the class-war (as during the General Strike), his taste for direct action and his failure to comprehend the basic aspirations of British socialism made him anathema to the Labour Party for many years. There were deeper shortcomings. Most of the mass-movements of his time left him unmoved and uncomprehending. He tried to stifle communism at birth and was puzzled by its resilience – until it presented itself to him in the person of Stalin, a conventional power-figure he could understand.

But his unawareness of system and cyclical change gave him great strength as an empiricist. In moments of crisis he was unburdened by preconceptions or rigid beliefs. This made him the greatest man of action of his age. He saw 1914 not as the end of an epoch, but as a moment when the Fleet ought to be ready and at sea. Unlike the appeasers, he regarded Hitler not as a complex phenomenon to be placed in an elaborate historical context, but simply as a menace to civilisation – and he reacted accordingly. He was the first to scrap the ideological barriers when the Nazis invaded Russia, the first in the West to restore them – at Fulton in 1946 – when Hitlerism had been destroyed. He offered union with France in 1940 as a straightforward alternative to imminent defeat; but turned his back on Europe in 1951, when the opportunity to create a rationalised structure presented itself. He was a great internationalist: but mainly in the interests of national self-survival. He was thus able to prolong Britain’s existence as a leading power by an entire generation – perhaps two – and to preserve the freedom of countless millions to propagate political and social ideas he detested.

Many more sober statesmen saw his immense appetite for unregarding action as dangerous. This was to misunderstand the man. Churchill was rash, but incapable of using power evilly. For a politician he had exceptional magnanimity, his flashes of anger yielding swiftly to the lure of comradeship. He loved battle but detested persecution. Underlying these characteristics was the one salient principle of his life: his passionate regard for British parliamentary democracy. This may seem paradoxical in a man who was an aristocrat by birth and an outsider by temperament. Churchill, indeed, was not a skilful electioneer and frequently found himself rejected. But this never dimmed his conviction that the British people, as a whole, formed a mature and wise corporation, who could be trusted to exercise their constitutional rights responsibly. He saw it as his duty and function to use his matchless courage, oratory and powers of leadership to extract from our people the best they had to give. By a grandiose accident of history, he was privileged to discharge that role in full measure.

29 January 1965: “What panache! What guts!”

By Hugh Dalton

A Labour colleague in Churchill’s wartime cabinet remembers how he fell under the prime minister’s spell.

It is finished. “Now,” as was said of Lincoln, “he belongs to the ages.” I offer here no profound appreciation nor compressed life story of Winston Churchill, but only some personal memories and judgements. I served with him in the House of Commons for close on 30 years; and in his War Coalition, as a minister of cabinet rank, for more than five years; for two years as Minister of Economic Warfare and “Special Operations” – “Minister of Ungentlemanly Warfare”, he used to call me – then for three years as President of the Board of Trade. But for more than 50 years he fascinated me by his personality and style.

At Cambridge, from 1906 to 1910, I was a Fabian socialist while he was a Liberal minister. Obviously he was much more interesting to us young men than most old cabinet ministers. Stories about him circulated among us. Some reached me through Rupert Brooke from Eddie Marsh, who
accompanied him, as private secretary, on an East African tour. A colonial governor spoke of the regrettable spread of venereal disease among the natives. “Ah,” said Winston, “Pox Britannica!” And late one night, on this same trip, reflecting on the wide disparities of fortune, not least between these Africans and the Europeans: “I don’t think much of God,” said Winston; “he hasn’t put enough in the pool.”

I first met him in October 1908 at dinner with the Webbs. He was President of the Board of Trade, and they had just persuaded him to set up labour exchanges. Now they wanted to sell him the staff to run them. Beveridge was there, of course, and some younger people. That night Winston talked much, diffusely and overpoweringly, and listened little. But he engaged Beveridge, as the Webbs had planned.

Churchill put himself wrong with the Labour Party on many issues and occasions: at Tonypandy in 1910 when he used troops against miners on strike; in his return to the gold standard in 1925, though [Philip] Snowden agreed with him on this; in the General Strike in 1926, when he gaily abandoned the Treasury in order to edit the British Gazette; in his persistent military intervention in Russia in 1919 and 1920 against what he called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”; in his rebellious resistance in the early Thirties to even the slow and cautious advances of a Tory cabinet towards Indian self-government. But, as the Thirties wore on, many of us, especially the British rearmers in the Labour Party, felt ourselves drawing nearer to him.

I was in touch with him and other Tory dissenters around the time of Munich. For a moment a big Tory breakaway from Chamberlain seemed possible. This dream soon faded then. In May 1940 it came true.

From 1940 to 1945 we Labour ministers worked with him, on the whole, well, but watchfully. He had a double nature. Bevin once said to me: “One day he’s a great national leader; next day he’s just a Tory political crook.” I was never intimate with him. But he gave me good support while I was one of his ministers, and we had no serious quarrel. Often, in cabinet conflicts, he took my side, sometimes most decisively. But I was sometimes discontented because I could not gain his full interest in projects which I thought important.

In May 1940, when I first joined his government, I fell completely under his spell. What panache! What guts! In those tense days I would have followed him anywhere. We had no other leader, no other saviour. “I felt,” he said when he became Prime Minister, “as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

On the political side of the war Churchill had prejudices, not always helpful. Thus he was too fond of kings, in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia; just as, some think, he stuck too long to our own Edward VIII and leaned too far, as a historian, towards Charles and away from Cromwell. In home politics in 1943-5 he aimed at preventing disruptive disputes within his government. On 28 May 1945, after the Coalition government had broken up, he was At Home at No 10 Downing Street to those who had served in it. Standing behind the familiar green baize cabinet table, now draped as a buffet, he addressed us with tears streaming down his cheeks. He said that we had all come together and had stayed together as a united band of friends in a very trying time. History would recognise this. “The light of history will shine on all your helmets.”

In his last years he frequented the House of Commons, but more and more as a ghost. He walked along the corridors with a severe arthritic limp. He had determined never to try to speak in the House again. He seldom smiled. He missed his dead or stricken friends, Cherwell or Eden. He now wished to die. A conservative who had been a close cabinet colleague told me that he had tried in vain, dining alone with him in recent years, to arouse his interest or to give him pleasure. But “I am hoping,” he had said, “that I shall be sent for soon.”

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

Credit: BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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A century ago, the Spanish flu killed 100 million people. Is a new pandemic on the way?

Our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have.

It is hard not to have a sneaking envy of the virus. As complex creatures, we are distracted by myriad demands on our attention; we will never know the dead-eyed focus of the viral world. It is akin to the psychopath: a cold, purposeful drive to achieve its own agenda, coupled with the skills and resourcefulness to succeed. In a world threatened by nuclear war and devastating climate change, it may actually be the virus that we should fear most.

This is the centenary year of the Spanish flu outbreak, when a virus killed between 50 and 100 million people in a matter of months. The devastation was worldwide; it is only known as Spanish flu because Spain, neutral in the ongoing hostilities of World War One, was the only country without press restrictions. Across Europe, people assumed their own outbreaks originated in the only place reporting on the disaster.

A number of authors have lined up with a kind of grim celebration of influenza’s annus mirabilis. As well as chronicling the fatal reach of this organism, they all offer a warning about a follow-up pandemic that is overdue – and for which, it seems, we are largely unprepared. “Somewhere out there a dangerous virus is boiling up in the bloodstream of a bird, bat, monkey, or pig, preparing to jump to a human being,” says Jonathan Quick in The End of Epidemics. “It has the potential to wipe out millions of us, including my family and yours, over a matter of weeks or months.”

If that seems a little shlocky, you should know that Quick is no quack. He is a former director at the WHO, the current chair of the Global Health Council and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. The book’s blurb includes endorsements from the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the president of Médicins Sans Frontières, and the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The numbers Quick serves up are stupefying. Bill Gates, for instance, has said it is more likely than not that he will live to see a viral outbreak kill over 10 million people in a year. In Gates’s nightmare scenario, outlined by computer simulations created with disease-modelling experts, 33 million people die within 200 days of the first human infection. The potential for exponential spread means a death toll of 300 million is possible in the first year. “We would be in a world where scrappy, ravaged survivors struggle for life in a zombie-movie wasteland,” Quick tells us in his informed, cogent and – honestly – frightening book.

If you can’t imagine what that is like, you could try asking the Yupik people of Alaska, who were devastated by the 1918 Spanish flu. You might not get an answer, however, because they remain traumatised, and have made a pact not to speak about the pandemic that shattered their ancient culture.  (A pandemic is a disease that spreads across continents; an epidemic is usually contained within a country or continent.)They aren’t the only long-term sufferers. The Vanuatu archipelago suffered 90 per cent mortality and 20 of its local languages went extinct. Those in the womb in 1918 were also affected. A baby born in 1919 “was less likely to graduate and earn a reasonable wage, and more likely to go to prison, claim disability benefit, and suffer from heart disease,” reports Laura Spinney in Pale Rider.

Such arresting snippets of the flu’s legacy abound in Spinney’s thoughtful, coherent take on the 1918 outbreak. The book’s subtitle suggests that the Spanish flu changed the world, and Spinney certainly backs this up. Societies broke down and had to be rebuilt; recovering populations were reinvigorated by the simple calculus of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”; public health provisions were first imagined and then brought into reality; artists and writers responded to a new global mood by establishing new movements.

Not every outcome could be spun as a positive. Scientists, for instance, were humiliated by their inability to halt the flu’s progress, creating an opportunity for quack medicines to arise and establish themselves. Some of our greatest writers lived through the trauma, but could never bring themselves to discuss it in their stories. Virginia Woolf noted that it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature”.

Spinney’s background as a science writer shines through: her handling of the workings of the flu is detailed and deft. She brings both the influenza A virus (the only type responsible for pandemics) and the human immune system to life, laying out the biochemical processes that kill and cure with clarity and care. She exposes the chilling roots of often-used but seldom-explained viral names such as “H1N1” (Spanish flu) or “H5N1” (bird flu). H is for haemagglutinin, the lollipop-shaped appendage that allows a virus to break into a cell and take over the means of production. N is for neuraminidase, the “glass-cutter” structure that allows replicated viruses to break out again and unleash hell upon the host. So far, we know of 18 H’s and 11 N’s and they all have ever-evolving sub-types that make a long-lasting general vaccine against the flu an elusive dream: “Every flu pandemic of the 20th century was triggered by the emergence of a new H in influenza A,” says Spinney.

For all her technical expertise, Spinney has a light touch and a keen eye for the comic. She relates how a ferret sneezing in the face of a British researcher in 1933 exposed influenza’s ability to travel between biological species, for instance. She also excels with the bigger picture, detailing the century of scientific detective work that has allowed us to piece together the genetic elements of the 1918 virus and gain insights into its creation. It seems to have jumped to humans on a farm in Kansas, via domestic and wild birds indigenous to North America. There may also have been some ingredients from pigs, too, but that’s not settled.

Spinney’s afterword questions whether our collective memory for such events ever reflects the truth of the moment. “When the story of the Spanish flu was told, it was told by those who got off most lightly: the white and well off,” she tells us. “With very few exceptions, the ones who bore the brunt of it, those living in ghettoes or at the rim, have yet to tell their tale. Some, such as the minorities whose languages died with them, never will.”

That said, Catharine Arnold has done a remarkable job of relating the tales of a diverse set of sufferers, crafting an arresting and intimate narrative of the 1918 pandemic. She pulls the accounts of hundreds of victims into a gripping tale that swoops down into the grisly detail, then soars up to give a broad view over the landscape of this calamitous moment in human history.

Arnold’s remembrances come from the unknown and from celebrities. A Margery Porter from south London emphasised that “we just couldn’t stand up. Your legs actually gave way, I can’t exaggerate that too much.” John Steinbeck described the experience of infection as almost spiritual. “I went down and down,” he said, “until the wingtips of angels brushed my eyes.”

The reality was, inevitably, less poetic. A local surgeon removed one of Steinbeck’s ribs so that he could gain access to the author’s infected lung. Most victims’ bodies turned blue-black as they died. Healthcare workers reported appalling scenes, with delirious patients suffering horrific nosebleeds. “Sometimes the blood would just shoot across the room,” a navy nurse recalled. If their lungs punctured, the patients’ bodies would fill with air. “You would feel somebody and he would be bubbles… When their lungs collapsed, air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise with sounded like Rice Krispies when you pour milk over them.”

The killer in 1918 was often not the flu virus itself but the “cytokine storm” of an immune system overreacting to the infection. Strong, fit young people, with their efficient immune systems, were thus particularly at risk, their bodies effectively shutting themselves down. Then there were the ravages of opportunistic bacteria that would lodge in the devastated tissue, causing pneumonia and other fatal complications. Arnold paints a grim but vivid picture of exhausted gravediggers and opportunistic funeral directors cannily upping their prices. The morgues were overflowing, and morticians worked day and night. In the end, mass graves were the only answer for the poverty-stricken workers attempting to bury their loved ones before they, too, succumbed.

No one was spared from grief or suffering at the hands of the “Spanish Lady”, as the flu came to be known. Louis Brownlow, the city commissioner for Washington DC, reported nursing his stricken wife while answering telephone calls from desperate citizens. One woman called to say that of the three girls she shared a room with, two had died, and the third was on her way out. Brownlow sent a police officer to the house. A few hours later, the sergeant reported back from the scene: “Four girls dead.”

Some of the other stories Arnold has unearthed are equally heartbreaking. A Brooklyn boy called Michael Wind wrote of the moment his mother died after less than a day of being ill. He and his five siblings were at her bedside, as was their father, “head in hands, sobbing bitterly”. The following morning, knowing that he was soon to die too, their father took the three youngest children to the orphanage.

Arnold writes beautifully, and starkly, of the tragedy that unfolded in the autumn months of 1918: “the Spanish Lady played out her death march, killing without compunction. She did not discriminate between statesmen, painters, soldiers, poets, writers or brides.” She chronicles the Lady’s path from the United States and Canada through Europe, Africa and Asia, culminating in New Zealand’s “Black November”. The book is utterly absorbing. But how do we respond to its horrors and tragedies? What are we to do with our collective memories of such visceral, world-shattering events? Learn from them – and fast, argues Jonathan Quick.

Unlike Arnold and Spinney, Quick is not content to be a chronicler or a bystander. He is, he says, both terrified at the looming disaster and furious at the lack of high-level reaction to its threat. He is determined to create a movement that will instigate change, mimicking the way activists forced change from governments paralysed by, and pharmaceutical companies profiteering from, the Aids pandemic. Quick has channelled his fury: The End of Epidemics is, at heart, a call to arms against influenza, Ebola, Zika and the many other threats before us.

 

So what are we to do? First, our leaders need to act like the outbreak has already started – because for all we know it may have. We must strengthen our public health systems, and create robust agencies and NGOs ready to monitor and deal with the threat. We must educate citizens and implement surveillance, prevention and response mechanisms, while fighting misinformation and scaremongering. Governments must step up (and fund) research.

We can’t develop a vaccine until the threat is manifest, but we can prepare technology for fast large-scale production. We can also invest in methods of early diagnoses and virus identification. Invest $1 per person per year for 20 years and the threat will be largely neutralised, Quick suggests. Finally – and most importantly – there is an urgent need to create grass-roots support for these measures: citizen groups and other organisations that will hold their leaders to account and prevent death on a scale that no one alive has ever experienced. Is this achievable? Traumatised readers of Quick’s book will be left hoping that it is.

For all the advances of the last century, there are many unknowns. Scientists don’t know, for instance, which microbe will bring the next pandemic, where it will come from, or whether it will be transmitted through the air, by touch, through body fluids or through a combination of routes.

While there is considerable attention focused on communities in West Africa, East Asia or South America as the most likely source of the next outbreak, it’s worth remembering that most scientists now believe the 1918 influenza outbreak began on a farm in Kansas. Quick suggests the
next pandemic might have a similar geographical origin, thanks to the industrialised livestock facilities beloved by American food giants.

Viruses naturally mutate and evolve rapidly, taking up stray bits of genetic material wherever they can be found. But it’s the various flu strains that live inside animals that bring sleepless nights to those in the know. They can exist inside a pig, bat or chicken without provoking symptoms, but prove devastating if (when) they make the jump to humans. As more and more humans live in close proximity to domesticated animals, encroach on the territories inhabited by wild animals, and grow their food on unprecedented scales, our chance of an uncontrollable epidemic increase.

The meat factories known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs) are particularly problematic. They provide cheap meat, poultry, dairy and
eggs from animals kept in what Quick terms “concentration camp conditions”, simultaneously creating the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous pathogens. Pigs, he points out, eat almost everything, so their guts are the perfect mixing bowls for a new and deadly influenza strain. “CAFOs were the birthplace of swine flu, and they could very likely be the birthplace of the next killer pandemic,” Quick warns.

There are other possibilities, though – bioterror, for instance. Bill Gates is among
those who have warned that terrorist groups are looking into the possibility of releasing the smallpox virus in a crowded market, or on a plane. Then there is the possibility of a scientist’s mistake. In 1978 a woman died after smallpox was released from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham, UK. In 2004 two Chinese researchers accidentally infected themselves with the SARS virus and spread it to seven other people, one of whom died. In 2014, a cardboard box full of forgotten vials of smallpox was found in a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland. A year later, the US military accidentally shipped live anthrax spores to labs in the US and a military base in South Korea. It’s not impossible that human error could strike again – with catastrophic results.

Such possibilities lie behind our discomfort with what scientists have to do to further our understanding. Researchers in Rotterdam, for instance, wanted to know whether the deadly H5N1 bird flu could develop a capacity for airborne transmission like the common cold virus. Having failed to modify its genetics to achieve this, they began to pass an infection between ferrets, the animals whose response to the virus most mimics that of humans. Ten ferrets later, healthy animals were catching the virus from the cage next door. Knowing how easily H5N1 can become airborne is exactly the kind of discovery that will bolster our vigilance. It is, after all, many times more fatal than the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu. At the same time, there was a huge – but understandable –
furore over whether the research should
be published, and thus be available to potential bioterrorists.

We might have to live with such dilemmas, because it is important to be ready to challenge the killer virus when it arrives. As we have seen with Aids and the common cold, developing vaccines takes time, and there is no guarantee of success, even with a concerted research effort.

****

Will we be ready? Quick suggests that our best chance lies in the world’s business leaders realising what’s at stake: economies would be devastated by the next pandemic. In 1918, Arnold points out, the British government was telling citizens it was their patriotic duty to “carry on” and make sure the wheels of industry kept turning. The result was a perfect environment for mass infection. Political leaders made similar mistakes across the Atlantic: on 12 October President Wilson led a gathering of 25,000 New Yorkers down the “Avenue of the Allies”. “That same week,” Arnold reports, “2,100 New Yorkers died of influenza.”

It’s worth noting that Spanish flu did not abate because we outsmarted it. The pandemic ended because the virus ran out of people it could infect. Of those who didn’t die, some survived through a chance natural immunity, and some were lucky enough to have maintained a physical separation from those carrying the invisible threat. The virus simply failed to kill the rest, enabling their bodies to develop the antibodies required to repel a further attack. A generation or two later, when the antibody-equipped immune systems were in the grave, and humans were immunologically vulnerable (and complacent) once again, H1N1 virus re-emerged, causing the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

As these books make clear, this is a history that could repeat all too easily in our time. Of the three, Pale Rider is perhaps the most satisfying. It has greater complexity and nuance than Arnold’s collection of harrowing tales, fascinating though they are. Spinney’s analysis is more circumspect and thus less paralysing than Quick’s masterful exposition of our precarious situation. But the truth is we need all these perspectives, and probably more, if we are to avoid sleepwalking into the next pandemic. Unlike our nemesis, humans lack focus – and it could be our undoing. 

Michael Brooks’s most recent book is “The Quantum Astrologer’s Handbook” (Scribe)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World
Laura Spinney
Vintage, 352pp, £25

Pandemic 1918: The Story of the Deadliest Influenza in History
Catharine Arnold
Michael O’Mara, 368pp, £20

The End of Epidemics
Jonathan D Quick with Bronwyn Fryer
Scribe, 288pp, £14.99

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth